A collection of ancient standing stones in Extremadura dubbed the Spanish Stonehenge is set to acquire cultural heritage protection status despite being completely unvisitable because it is at the bottom of a reservoir.

The all but forgotten structure made headlines during the exceptionally long hot summer of 2019 when the megalithic stone circle emerged from the receding waters of the Embalse de Valdecañas in Cacares province.

Much to the astonishment of locals, the stones became visible following years of successive droughts in the region for the first time in the more than half a century since the entire zone was flooded under a Franco era damming scheme.

Dolmen 2
EXPOSED & VULNERABLE: The Dolmen of Guadalperal in Extremadura

The exposed stones were in fact the long lost Dolmen of Guadalperal, which historians believe were built in the second or third millennium BC.

The term ‘dolmen’ is typically used to describe an ancient structure where standing stones support a large capstone to create a chamber – a structure often used for early Neolithic tombs.

The chamber inside may have functioned as a tomb, a religious site, or even a trading post along the Tagus River – as it was then easy to cross the river at this point.

This site was originally discovered in 1926 by the German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier, who also found artefacts and remains of the civilisation that built it.

Dolmen 1926
PRE-FLOODING: The ancient stones prior to 1963

In 1963, Franco’s government flooded the area to create the Valdecañas Reservoir and hydro-electric dam to supply underdeveloped parts of western Spain.

But when the water level fell to a record low, the dolmen emerged in full for the first time in over five decades.

NASA images taken six years apart showed the changing shoreline, revealing the structure in its entirety.

The monument’s engravings have faded over time, due to the porous stones eroding in the water.

Some local residents and cultural groups campaigned to relocate the stones and move the monument to safer territory before the water level rose again.

In turn, this would preserve the monument, promote tourism, and proudly display Spain’s prehistoric history, they said.

But with the clock ticking and lake filling, Spain’s Ministry of Culture turned down the plan, stating that any scheme to move the dolmen would “risk a loss of authenticity if its relocation were to be considered.”

It considers it  “fundamental to preserve its historical values and its landscape relationship with the territory that it remains in the place where it was built.”

However in a bulletin on Spain’s Official State Gazette published in January, the Ministry of Culture said the site would be recommended for BIC (Bien de Interés Cultural or asset of cultural interest) designation, which theoretically affords it legal protection, even though it is now entirely submerged once again.

In the meantime, a team of scuba-diving archaeologists will keep tabs on the structure.

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